Mountaineering is not an inherently thrilling activity to observe others take part in; it’s mostly just people trudging along for hours on end and might only be considered ‘interesting’ to many when something goes wrong. In adapting the true story of an ill-fated 1996 expedition to summit Mount Everest, a big-budget movie might well feel the need to inject a good dose of phoney drama into the equation. Have a hot-headed, ego-driven guy there who refuses to toe the line, or give someone a tragic back-story that’ll be revealed half-way through then become relevant to the finale say, or maybe just throw in a few more tense sequences or conflict or action in the early stages?
Everest doesn’t really do any such thing. A lot of it just feels as if you are watching how this expedition went down. Bar one dangerous moment of a character slipping on a ladder, the first half of the film has little by way of incident, instead ably introducing its ensemble cast and through their activities conveying to the audience how an Everest ascent is attempted. One might think that taking this approach, while likely more authentic, would result in a somewhat less exhilarating film, but in fact the opposite occurs. In not trying to ‘Hollywoodize’ this story, we’re left with a disaster movie that stands out more and, for those unfamiliar with the true story at least, not an especially predictable one.
While Everest does give audiences a very good idea about the logistics and trials of an Everest ascent, it doesn’t at all possess a docudrama tone or style. Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (significantly improving on the forgettable likes of Contraband and 2 Guns) shoots the movie with an impressive sheen that reflects the true nature of the mountain. Sometimes it can be bitterly harsh, other times it can be stunningly beautiful. He doesn’t overuse them but Kormákur throws in a few gorgeous spinning aerial shots of the incredible landscape on appropriate occasions. He also doesn’t allow the audience to have much advanced knowledge on the characters; we see the new stages of the mountain as they reach them. When we do, they’re by turns daunting and spectacular enough that you’d never know this was primarily shot in Italy or on sound stages.
The realism over glamour precedent of Everest continues to its mostly excellent casting choices too. Our lead is Jason Clarke as Rob Hall, an experienced mountaineer from New Zealand who, as the effectively brief title cards inform us, has pioneered guided ascents of Everest with clients which has significantly reduced the average death toll. Clarke, an accomplished actor who seems now be graduating more to lead roles, but is still not exactly a name draw, genuinely looks like he could be an expert mountain climber. Much more so than if they’d cast Channing Tatum or someone similar. Likewise, his clients are mainly a group of middle aged character actors including John Hawkes as a divorced mailman, Josh Brolin as a doctor and mountain enthusiast and Michael Kelly as a journalist wishing to chronicle the trip.
Indeed, it’s actually quite important that they didn’t simply look for hot movie stars to play these roles, as it’s necessary to establish that the kind of people who are able to undertake such a trip also need the resources to fork up the hefty price tag. Arguably the most famous performer in the film, Kiera Knightley as Clarke’s pregnant wife back home, probably has only 10 minutes of screen time.
Rounding out the large cast is Naoko Mori as a Japanese woman wishing to complete the Seven Summits, Emily Watson as Clarke’s base camp manager and some fellow/rival guides played by Sam Worthington, Jake Gyllenhaal and a memorably eccentric Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson. Everest certainly risks confusing its audience by simply having too many characters, but it’s important to understand why screenwriters William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy decided not to reduce them for this film. The risk of having too many climbers on the mountain is a significant theme, and one this movie subtly challenges, it simply wouldn’t work if there were only a handful of characters.
Having recognizable faces helps but there are inevitably a few climbers who get muddled in the mix; Martin Henderson plays a guide who has an important part later on but is not effectively introduced at all, while Jake Gyllenhaal pops in and out for such short stretches that you’re left thinking he might have had a larger part in the script.
For the most part though, Everest is very successful in communication what’s going on without resorting to obvious exposition. Mountaineering terms are used throughout with the assumption that everyone knows what they are, and other little details that the audience wouldn’t necessarily know, such as Rob’s $65,000 price tag, are revealed in natural dialogue.
What Everest is perhaps a little weaker on, is examining just why on Earth anyone would attempt such a difficult and dangerous feat in the first place. There’s a scene in which the journalists asks his team this question, and gets a few varying answers (including a “because it’s there!” from the guides) but nothing of any substance. Personally, I don’t know if I’d ever do it myself but I do get why someone would attempt to conquer Mount Everest, but if you think it’s just a stupidly dangerous stunt, this film will only reinforce that view.
When disaster does inevitably strike, Everest stays true to the aforementioned authenticity. It’s no-one’s fault, just nature taking its course. When deaths occur, be it by freezing, falling or something else, they’re never sentimentalised or lingered on, an approach that makes them all the more affecting. If you, like me, were unfamiliar with the true story, those who survive and those who don’t, and the manner in which they do either may prove quite surprising. As I said before, this does not play out like a typical disaster movie.
I hadn’t expected a great deal from Everest, but after watching it I went home and spent about three hours reading up on not just this expedition but the whole history of Mount Everest ascents to their (quite shocking) state in the present day. If a movie inspires more learning about its subject, that can only be a good thing.